Journalists love to dive in. Once we’ve got a topic in mind, we rush off to report, write/record, edit and publish. When launching a new venture, though, whether a local or niche site, an app, a network or something else entirely, it’s useful to add a fifth step early on: market research.
In addition to surfacing opportunities you may not have thought about, market research helps clarify the characteristics and interests of your community. It also arms you with business information that’s useful when you’re pitching your product or service to advertisers, sponsors, investors or potential partners.
Before ponying up for subscription services, spend some time with the free resources I’ve outlined below. They’ll help you get a preliminary handle on your intended market.
Size up your audience
Start by gathering basic qualitative and quantitative information about your community and your competitors. Get a quick overview of the businesses in your target ZIP codes. Find out what other sites your intended audience is already visiting, what they’re searching for and where they are. Get a rough picture of how those already out there are faring. There are some free tools that will give you a quick snapshot of the products and services already out there.
Start with Google Ad Planner, even if you’re not focused on ad research. Though developed for advertisers assessing audiences, Ad Planner is handy for quick market assessments for anyone launching a product or service. For example, if you’re contemplating starting a regional business news site for Hartford and New Haven, Conn., you could use Ad Planner to home in on that subject matter and location and then find out what sites are already popular.
Ad Planner also provides a snapshot of audience characteristics for existing sites, including age, gender, education and income breakdowns. This is useful for getting a ballpark picture of your potential audience. Ad Planner relies on a gigantic mass of Google data to develop its estimates, which are approximations. Check Google’s fine print to learn more about how the data are gathered, and the limitations. Bottom line: the service provides a useful starting point as you’re learning about your audience.
Google AdWords is another tool that’s worth a quick spin as you’re performing a real-world check on your idea. You can run some of your key topic words and ideas through the tool, which helps provide a quick snapshot of what people are searching for. It can hint at what topics readers may consider to be closely related to the topics you have in mind.
If you’re planning on supporting your site with ads, Google AdWords can also give you a quick initial take on the degree to which advertisers value your subject matter as determined by the market price for related keywords.
To round out your starting information, use a free resource like Melissa Data to get local maps, a list of the number of various businesses in a given ZIP code, and any other information that will help refine your understanding of your community. For an exhaustive list of other online market research resources, visit ZenithOptimedia’s Marketer’s Directory, pointed out to me by my CUNY Journalism School colleague, Barbara Gray, a star research librarian.
Find out more about competitor sites
If you’re aware of existing competitors in a particular market, spend a few minutes running through their stats on Quarkbase, Alexa, Quantcast and Compete. Quarkbase provides basic background information on a site, as well as recent tweets about it. It also lists some of the pages within a site that are popular on social networks and that are blogged about. It will even tell you some of the tools that your potential partners or competitors are using.
Alexa gives you some useful information about a site’s audience trends over time, its most popular sub pages, and what people have searched for to end up on that site. Quantcast tells you what other sites a visitor to an existing site frequents, what percentage of visitors are “addicts” versus “passers-by,” and the demographic makeup of the site’s audience.
None of these services can guarantee the accuracy of their information, so think of them as a good starting point for your research, not an end point.
Conduct surveys to gain insight into your community
After gathering community and competitor information, you can gather some real-world insights about your community with qualitative surveys. It’s easy to craft, deliver and collate such surveys using Google Forms.
Create questions that help you understand the relevant media consumption, preferences and behavior of those in your intended audience. Google Forms (part of the free Google Docs suite of Microsoft Office-like Web applications) lets you include multiple-choice, checkbox and scale questions, as well as open-ended questions that give your respondents a chance to express their ideas, questions and suggestions.
As with most survey services, you can then email your survey, post it through social media or embed it on a site or blog. Responses automatically populate a spreadsheet that you can use not only to find and graph patterns of preference or behavior but also to collect and assess more open-ended qualitative suggestions.
Polldaddy, SurveyMonkey, Zoomerang and Poll Everywhere are good alternative survey tools. Poll Everywhere has a distinctively useful feature — respondents can respond to poll questions by texting. That’s handy if you’re reaching out to an audience that thrives on texting, or if you’re surveying an audience in a live session or event. For those with more money than time, services such as AYTM and Lab 42 will conduct quick market research for you.
Get answers to questions about your market
An increasingly useful stop in the initial phase of market research is Quora.com. You can pose an open-ended question about your market, audience or idea and let experts voluntarily reply with thoughts, facts, stats, suggestions or data.
Beyond its value as an outlet for seeking guidance, though, Quora is an increasingly useful living reference for market examples. (Here’s a new Quora board I created with questions and answers for entrepreneurial journalists.) Some Quora questions take awhile to generate responses, while others do not get answered at all. For quick searches of the broadening database of existing questions and answers, though, Quora can be quite handy.
The reason I’ve become such a fan of Quora, which I recently wrote about for the Daily, is that its community rating system has ensured that you can quickly search, retrieve and act on information you find on the site. That’s because the thousands of answers to all sorts of questions are filtered well enough that you can quickly find highly-ranked answers written by people with relevant expertise.
To simplify what can seem like an arduous task, start an afternoon of initial research with these simple Web tools. Depending on how much you already know about your community, you may end up spending additional hours, days or weeks digging into market and audience data. A little market research is useful even if you take the popular “lean startup” approach — launching a project and refining it as you go, rather than waiting until it’s a finished product.
At the very least, spend whatever time it takes to get a qualitative and quantitative initial overview of your community. Doing so will lay the groundwork for both strong community coverage and a solid business case for your project.
What market research resources have you found helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments section.